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10 Common Dog Behavior Modification Mistakes

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.

Why isn't behavior modification working for your dog's aggressive behavior? Following are  common mistakes.

Why isn't behavior modification working for your dog's aggressive behavior? Following are common mistakes.

Implementing Behavior Modification for Dog Aggression

You may have tried implementing behavior modification for your aggressive dog, but you may find yourself stuck with your dog barely progressing or actually regressing. Why is that?

There can be several explanations for this, and often you'll need to do some troubleshooting in order to find out what is going wrong. Often, all it takes is recognizing a little mistake for things to go smoothly again, but at times, you may need to do much more.

For starters, behavior modification for aggressive dogs is something that takes time. Dogs who have rehearsed aggressive behavior for years will not automatically develop an angelic halo over their heads within a week, and often not even within one month.

Aggression is often self-reinforcing behavior that can almost get addictive at a chemical level. James O' Heare in his book The Canine Aggression Workbook explains how a dog's brain is flooded with chemicals such as adrenalin, cortisol and endorphins, which can be addictive, making the aggression reinforcing.

But there's more to this. Often at an operant level, the dog may find aggression reinforcing if it functions to send an unwanted trigger away. For instance, if your dog uses an aggressive display towards people on bikes, and those people on bikes move away, he'll feel that his behavior "operated," and therefore, functioned to send those people on bikes away, providing him with a sense of relief.

This makes it more and more likely for him to elect to use this strategy in the future.

In order to work on dog aggression using behavior modification, you will need to have the following elements on your side:

  • A professional to guide you through the process for safety and correct implementation
  • A good history of safety and trust with your dog
  • An understanding of your dog's body language
  • An understanding of your dog's threshold levels
  • An understanding of the process of desensitization
  • An understanding of the process of counterconditioning
  • A plan to prevent your dog from being exposed to circumstances he's not ready for
  • Proper tools to have better control of your dog—no prong, choke or shock collars!
  • Preferably a food motivated dog
  • A knowledge of what treats are considered high-value by your dog
  • An understanding of things that can go wrong so you can prevent them

In this article, we will specifically address the latter (things that can go wrong), so you can troubleshoot and hopefully find the underlying issues that are contributing to keeping your dog from progressing.

We all want our dogs to succeed, but at times, when the elements aren't balanced correctly things may not progress as desired. In the next paragraphs, we will discuss in details, things that may go wrong.

This dog is licking his lips which is often a sign of nervousness.

This dog is licking his lips which is often a sign of nervousness.

10 Dog Behavior Modification Misrakes for Dog Aggression

This checklist will hopefully help you find what may be the missing link to the chain of events you are planning to change. Miss that link, and things may start crumbling under your feet, causing much discouragement and frustration. At the same time, this checklist may also be helpful to those who are starting behavior modification for dog aggression and want to learn about potential pitfalls.

1) Going Too Fast in the Process

This is often the most common problem when applying behavior modification. Many feel enthusiastic by the results attained and think "Let me just try to get a little bit closer... " and then they have a setback.

Your dog may be doing well with dogs at 50 feet, so you may feel compelled to progress to 30 feet in the same day. But your dog is not ready for that close of an encounter yet, so he suddenly lunges and barks.

Desensitization and counterconditioning needs to take place slowly. If you had fear of public speaking, most likely you wouldn't want to go from speaking in front of two people to speaking in front of 10! Doing so may cause a setback and make you more fearful of future public speaking!

2) Not Using Treats That are High-Value Enough

As mentioned, reactive behaviors are reinforcing, so you'll need to find treats that will be far more reinforcing so your dog chooses to take treats rather than engaging in aggressive behaviors.

3) Not Using the Right Tools

Prong collars, choke collars and shock collars have the potential to exacerbate aggression, as the dog learns to associate its triggers with an unpleasant sensation and these tools only work to suppress outward manifestation of aggression without addressing the dog's emotions.

A preferable tool is a front-attachment harness which reduces a dog's opposition reflex and teaches a dog how to walk calmly on a leash leash. Read my article on why I love, love, love these harnesses by clicking this link on front-attachment harnesses.

4) Not Establishing a Safety History

Your dog needs to trust you. This can be accomplished by not allowing anything bad to happen. If your dog is fearful of strangers, tell strangers not to approach. Move yourself between the stranger and your dog so you act as a safety buffer, suggests James O' Heare.

5) Not Controlling the Dog's Environment

You can establish a safety history while preventing rehearsal of aggressive behaviors by managing your dog and controlling the environment. If you know your dog reacts to dogs behind a fenced yard, avoid that for some time until you can gradually desensitize/counter-condition him and teach him alternate behaviors.

If your dog is reactive towards other dogs and there's a person walking a dog too close for comfort, make an about turn before he turns reactive. This requires constant scanning of the environment. You can also put the action of turning around on cue by training an emergency U-turn.

6) Failing to Read a Dog's Signs of Stress

To implement good behavior modification, you will need to recognize signs of stress so you can successfully work your dog under threshold. If your dog doesn't want to take treats, is unresponsive and is too worried, he cannot cognitively learn. You'll need to work more gradually, taking one little step at a time.

7) Failing to Stay Calm

Are you tensing up? Try your best to stay calm. Go on a jog with your dog in an area where there are rarely triggers so you will be both more relaxed when going on walks. Try taking deep breaths—don't make your dog feel tension on the leash by tightening it up more than needed.

For many dogs, that action of tightening up the leash becomes a cue that trouble is coming, making them more hypervigilant. Your leash can be kept short but still loose.

8) Failure to Train Alternate Behaviors

Are you training alternate behaviors? Try to train your incompatible dog alternate behaviors to replace the unwanted lunging. "Watch me" is a great verbal cue to ask a dog upon spotting a trigger.

9) Failure to Rule Out Medical Problems

Did your dog see a veterinarian? In some cases, reactive behaviors may be triggered by some underlying medical condition such as hypothyroidism or underlying pain. For more on this read "medical causes for dog aggression."

10) Not Working With a Professional

Are you working with a professional? If you are not, you may be missing some important elements that can be crucial for the outcome of behavior modification.

While it's true that nowadays there are ample of books and videos on the subject, consider that there's nothing like having a professional to coach and encourage you in the process. This is also a matter of safety. Dogs who are too stressed and over threshold may bite.

Look for a certified applied animal behaviorist or a board-certified veterinary behaviorist to help you out. Some dog trainers well versed in force-free dog behavior modification can be helpful too.

*Note: in some severe cases, your dog may be way too stressed for behavior modification to prove successful. In these severe cases, your dog may need some calming aids. Your veterinary behaviorist may decide whether your dog may need the help of prescription medications. Some dogs that are victims of prolonged stress and trigger stacking may also benefit from a cortisol vacation.

Disclaimer: if your dog is aggressive, play it safe and see a dog behavior professional for help. Trying things on your own can put you and others at risk.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2013 Adrienne Farricelli


Adrienne Farricelli (author) on October 23, 2013:

LKMore01, I wish so too! I am in the process of creating a website about the truths of shock collars, they're use is so revolting!

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on October 19, 2013:

Thanks for stopping by Jtrader and the votes up!

jtrader on October 19, 2013:

Good points for worried pet people to consider. Voted up and interesting!

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on October 16, 2013:

Thank you Lorlie, many "dog issues" often get better by changing the dog's emotional response.. I would recommend consulting with a behavior professional; some vets are too quick to suggest putting dogs down as they often had little training in behavior modification. Look for a veterinary behaviorist or a CAAB, best wishes!

Laurel Rogers from Bishop, Ca on October 15, 2013:

alexadry, I found this hub on Google+ and had to read it! I have a Queensland Heeler who is terrifying to guests, even family members, yet is in love with me. Though I've not taken him to the Vet except for shots, etc., I've spoken to her endlessly about "Clifford". She's convinced that he considers me his mate, and in fact encouraged me to put him down since he is so aggressive toward my husband, son, and my 3 year old grandson. He's yet to really hurt any of us, but he does 'nip', growl and bark-constantly if I am not around. He is a dear with me, sweet and submissive, but I am loathe to take him on walks at all.

This is a wonderful Hub and I appreciate the advice!

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on September 24, 2013:

Good to hear heidthorne that you have seen so much progress! You sound like a very dedicated owner. Thanks for stopping by!

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on September 24, 2013:

Whether it's aggression or other unwanted behaviors, professional help, patience and persistence are so critical. I remember thinking my one rescue would never get over his quirks on the walks. Now he's one of my star loose lead walking dogs.

Had to chuckle about the bikes issue. When people with bikes move away, dog thinks he's been successful. My dogs are very "successful" with the postal workers and UPS guys. :)

Elizabeth Parker from Las Vegas, NV on September 24, 2013:

Great hub. I wish that all dog owners would read this. Sharing!!

LKMore01 on September 21, 2013:

Truthfully, I wish they would outlaw shock collars all together. Excellent informative, concise. Dog aggression can be so misunderstood, alexadry. Thank you for our further education with your well researched article.